In a state that is nearly a third black, none of the 15 companies granted preliminary Maryland medical marijuana cultivation licenses in August is led by an African American. Pictured: A bud sits in a display jar at the Helping Hand marijuana store in Boulder on Sept. 16, 2015. (Jeremy Papasso, Daily Camera)

‘Modern-day civil rights fight’: Lawmakers plan bills for Maryland medical marijuana diversity

Black state lawmakers are planning to propose emergency legislation to address the dearth of minority-owned businesses approved to grow Maryland medical marijuana in the state and may demand scrapping the results of a nine-month application process and starting over.

Del. Cheryl D. Glenn (D-Baltimore) announced the plans at a Friday meeting of the Legislative Black Caucus aimed at addressing diversity in the burgeoning and potentially lucrative medical cannabis industry. The meeting was packed with about 100 people involved in prospective marijuana businesses who were divided on how to address the issue.

Black lawmakers had pushed for language in the 2014 medical marijuana legalization law requiring regulators to “actively seek to achieve” racial and ethnic diversity in the growing industry.

But in a state that is nearly a third black, none of the 15 companies granted preliminary cultivation licenses in August is led by an African American.

“This is a good modern-day civil rights fight,” Glenn said. “We are not going to delay anything, but are going to make sure it’s fair.”

The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission says it did not give any extra weight to applicants with minority ownership, citing a letter from the attorney general’s office suggesting that such a move would be illegal without a study showing discrimination in the industry.

But the attorney general’s office has since said that the commission could have ordered a study of disparities in industries similar to medical marijuana, such as pharmaceutical manufacturing, to justify racial preferences.

Paul W. Davies, chairman of the cannabis commission, met with Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) on Tuesday and said their offices will work together to come up with ways to achieve diversity.

“We want to explore every possible avenue in order to ensure maximum minority involvement in the medical cannabis program at every level,” Davies said after that meeting.

But Glenn said she is concerned the commission will not do enough, which is why she wants to push through legislation on an emergency basis when the General Assembly convenes in January.

The ideas floated at Friday’s meeting included eliminating caps on marijuana growing licenses to allow all minority companies to compete, conducting another round of licensing exclusively for minority-owned businesses and even starting the entire application process over, with race taken into account.

Any proposal will probably provoke a backlash from companies that were awarded licenses last month and could lose those licenses or market share, depending on what changes are made.

Prospective growers whose applications were ranked 16 through 20, just outside the cutoff, sent a letter to the black caucus touting their minority and female ownership and leadership. Their representatives told lawmakers the easiest solution for diversity would be to expand approvals to include them.

Meanwhile, John Pica, a lobbyist for a black-owned company that was not highly ranked, said he is considering suing the commission for failing to take steps to achieve racial diversity and wants the process restarted. Other witnesses countered that restarting the application review would be costly to all businesses and exacerbate delays in making the drug available for patients.

“What I’m hearing is the same thing: ‘I don’t want to start the process all over again, because of time and energy and money.’ But on the other side, I’m hearing, ‘This is all jacked up,’ ” said Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s). “At some point, we have to figure out how to make it all work.”

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has dispatched two top staff members to work with black lawmakers on the issue.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) pulled Glenn out of Friday’s meeting for a private conversation, later telling meeting attendees that the diversity issue was “getting thoroughly vetted.”

Glenn said Busch is committing to fast-tracking legislation when the next session begins. Busch’s chief of staff, Alex Hughes, said that the speaker is open to legislation but that his support hinges on the details.

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